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The Theory of the Leisure Class
by Thorstein Veblen
1899


Chapter II
Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Pecuniary Emulation
     In the sequence of cultural evolution the emergence of a
leisure class coincides with the beginning of ownership. This is
necessarily the case, for these two institutions result from the
same set of economic forces. In the inchoate phase of their
development they are but different aspects of the same general
facts of social structure.
     It is as elements of social structure -- conventional facts
-- that leisure and ownership are matters of interest for the
purpose in hand. An habitual neglect of work does not constitute
a leisure class; neither does the mechanical fact of use and
consumption constitute ownership. The present inquiry, therefore,
is not concerned with the beginning of indolence, nor with the
beginning of the appropriation of useful articles to individual
consumption. The point in question is the origin and nature of a
conventional leisure class on the one hand and the beginnings of
individual ownership as a conventional right or equitable claim
on the other hand.
     The early differentiation out of which the distinction
between a leisure and a working class arises is a division
maintained between men's and women's work in the lower stages of
barbarism. Likewise the earliest form of ownership is an
ownership of the women by the able bodied men of the community.
The facts may be expressed in more general terms. and truer to
the import of the barbarian theory of life, by saying that it is
an ownership of the woman by the man.
     There was undoubtedly some appropriation of useful articles
before the custom of appropriating women arose. The usages of
existing archaic communities in which there is no ownership of
women is warrant for such a view. In all communities the members,
both male and female, habitually appropriate to their individual
use a variety of useful things; but these useful things are not
thought of as owned by the person who appropriates and consumes
them. The habitual appropriation and consumption of certain
slight personal effects goes on without raising the question of
ownership; that is to say, the question of a conventional,
equitable claim to extraneous things.
     The ownership of women begins in the lower barbarian stages
of culture, apparently with the seizure of female captives. The
original reason for the seizure and appropriation of women seems
to have been their usefulness as trophies. The practice of
seizing women from the enemy as trophies, gave rise to a form of
ownership-marriage, resulting in a household with a male head.
This was followed by an extension of slavery to other captives
and inferiors, besides women, and by an extension of
ownershipmarriage to other women than those seized from the
enemy. The outcome of emulation under the circumstances of a
predatory life, therefore, has been on the one hand a form of
marriage resting on coercion, and on the other hand the custom of
ownership. The two institutions are not distinguishable in the
initial phase of their development; both arise from the desire of
the successful men to put their prowess in evidence by exhibiting
some durable result of their exploits. Both also minister to that
propensity for mastery which pervades all predatory communities.
From the ownership of women the concept of ownership extends
itself to include the products of their industry, and so there
arises the ownership of things as well as of persons.
     In this way a consistent system of property in goods is
gradually installed. And although in the latest stages of the
development, the serviceability of goods for consumption has come
to be the most obtrusive element of their value, still, wealth
has by no means yet lost its utility as a honorific evidence of
the owner's prepotence. 
     Wherever the institution of private property is found, even
in a slightly developed form, the economic process bears the
character of a struggle between men for the possession of goods.
It has been customary in economic theory, and especially among
those economists who adhere with least faltering to the body of
modernised classical doctrines, to construe this struggle for
wealth as being substantially a struggle for subsistence. Such
is, no doubt, its character in large part during the earlier and
less efficient phases of industry. Such is also its character in
all cases where the "niggardliness of nature" is so strict as to
afford but a scanty livelihood to the community in return for
strenuous and unremitting application to the business of getting
the means of subsistence. But in all progressing communities an
advance is presently made beyond this early stage of
technological development. Industrial efficiency is presently
carried to such a pitch as to afford something appreciably more
than a bare livelihood to those engaged in the industrial
process. It has not been unusual for economic theory to speak of
the further struggle for wealth on this new industrial basis as a
competition for an increase of the comforts of life, -- primarily
for an increase of the physical comforts which the consumption of
goods affords.
     The end of acquisition and accumulation is conventionally
held to be the consumption of the goods accumulated -- whether it
is consumption directly by the owner of the goods or by the
household attached to him and for this purpose identified with
him in theory. This is at least felt to be the economically
legitimate end of acquisition, which alone it is incumbent on the
theory to take account of. Such consumption may of course be
conceived to serve the consumer's physical wants -- his physical
comfort -- or his so-called higher wants -- spiritual, aesthetic,
intellectual, or what not; the latter class of wants being served
indirectly by an expenditure of goods, after the fashion familiar
to all economic readers.
     But it is only when taken in a sense far removed from its
naive meaning that consumption of goods can be said to afford the
incentive from which accumulation invariably proceeds. The motive
that lies at the root of ownership is emulation; and the same
motive of emulation continues active in the further development
of the institution to which it has given rise and in the
development of all those features of the social structure which
this institution of ownership touches. The possession of wealth
confers honour; it is an invidious distinction. Nothing equally
cogent can be said for the consumption of goods, nor for any
other conceivable incentive to acquisition, and especially not
for any incentive to accumulation of wealth.
     It is of course not to be overlooked that in a community
where nearly all goods are private property the necessity of
earning a livelihood is a powerful and ever present incentive for
the poorer members of the community. The need of subsistence and
of an increase of physical comfort may for a time be the dominant
motive of acquisition for those classes who are habitually
employed at manual labour, whose subsistence is on a precarious
footing, who possess little and ordinarily accumulate little; but
it will appear in the course of the discussion that even in the
case of these impecunious classes the predominance of the motive
of physical want is not so decided as has sometimes been assumed.
On the other hand, so far as regards those members and classes of
the community who are chiefly concerned in the accumulation of
wealth, the incentive of subsistence or of physical comfort never
plays a considerable part. Ownership began and grew into a human
institution on grounds unrelated to the subsistence minimum. The
dominant incentive was from the outset the invidious distinction
attaching to wealth, and, save temporarily and by exception, no
other motive has usurped the primacy at any later stage of the
development.
     Property set out with being booty held as trophies of the
successful raid. So long as the group had departed and so long as
it still stood in close contact with other hostile groups, the
utility of things or persons owned lay chiefly in an invidious
comparison between their possessor and the enemy from whom they
were taken. The habit of distinguishing between the interests of
the individual and those of the group to which he belongs is
apparently a later growth. Invidious comparison between the
possessor of the honorific booty and his less successful
neighbours within the group was no doubt present early as an
element of the utility of the things possessed, though this was
not at the outset the chief element of their value. The man's
prowess was still primarily the group's prowess, and the
possessor of the booty felt himself to be primarily the keeper of
the honour of his group. This appreciation of exploit from the
communal point of view is met with also at later stages of social
growth, especially as regards the laurels of war.
     But as soon as the custom of individual ownership begins to
gain consistency, the point of view taken in making the invidious
comparison on which private property rests will begin to change.
Indeed, the one change is but the reflex of the other. The
initial phase of ownership, the phase of acquisition by naive
seizure and conversion, begins to pass into the subsequent stage
of an incipient organization of industry on the basis of private
property (in slaves); the horde develops into a more or less
self-sufficing industrial community; possessions then come to be
valued not so much as evidence of successful foray, but rather as
evidence of the prepotence of the possessor of these goods over
other individuals within the community. The invidious comparison
now becomes primarily a comparison of the owner with the other
members of the group. Property is still of the nature of trophy,
but, with the cultural advance, it becomes more and more a trophy
of successes scored in the game of ownership carried on between
the members of the group under the quasi-peaceable methods of
nomadic life.
     Gradually, as industrial activity further displaced
predatory activity in the community's everyday life and in men's
habits of thought, accumulated property more and more replaces
trophies of predatory exploit as the conventional exponent of
prepotence and success. With the growth of settled industry,
therefore, the possession of wealth gains in relative importance
and effectiveness as a customary basis of repute and esteem. Not
that esteem ceases to be awarded on the basis of other, more
direct evidence of prowess; not that successful predatory
aggression or warlike exploit ceases to call out the approval and
admiration of the crowd, or to stir the envy of the less
successful competitors; but the opportunities for gaining
distinction by means of this direct manifestation of superior
force grow less available both in scope and frequency. At the
same time opportunities for industrial aggression, and for the
accumulation of property, increase in scope and availability. And
it is even more to the point that property now becomes the most
easily recognised evidence of a reputable degree of success as
distinguished from heroic or signal achievement. It therefore
becomes the conventional basis of esteem. Its possession in some
amount becomes necessary in order to any reputable standing in
the community. It becomes indispensable to accumulate, to acquire
property, in order to retain one's good name. When accumulated
goods have in this way once become the accepted badge of
efficiency, the possession of wealth presently assumes the
character of an independent and definitive basis of esteem. The
possession of goods, whether acquired aggressively by one's own
exertion or passively by transmission through inheritance from
others, becomes a conventional basis of reputability. The
possession of wealth, which was at the outset valued simply as an
evidence of efficiency, becomes, in popular apprehension, itself
a meritorious act. Wealth is now itself intrinsically honourable
and confers honour on its possessor. By a further refinement,
wealth acquired passively by transmission from ancestors or other
antecedents presently becomes even more honorific than wealth
acquired by the possessor's own effort; but this distinction
belongs at a later stage in the evolution of the pecuniary
culture and will be spoken of in its place.
     Prowess and exploit may still remain the basis of award of
the highest popular esteem, although the possession of wealth has
become the basis of common place reputability and of a blameless
social standing. The predatory instinct and the consequent
approbation of predatory efficiency are deeply ingrained in the
habits of thought of those peoples who have passed under the
discipline of a protracted predatory culture. According to
popular award, the highest honours within human reach may, even
yet, be those gained by an unfolding of extraordinary predatory
efficiency in war, or by a quasi-predatory efficiency in
statecraft; but for the purposes of a commonplace decent standing
in the community these means of repute have been replaced by the
acquisition and accumulation of goods. In order to stand well in
the eyes of the community, it is necessary to come up to a
certain, somewhat indefinite, conventional standard of wealth;
just as in the earlier predatory stage it is necessary for the
barbarian man to come up to the tribe's standard of physical
endurance, cunning, and skill at arms. A certain standard of
wealth in the one case, and of prowess in the other, is a
necessary condition of reputability, and anything in excess of
this normal amount is meritorious.
     Those members of the community who fall short of this,
somewhat indefinite, normal degree of prowess or of property
suffer in the esteem of their fellow-men; and consequently they
suffer also in their own esteem, since the usual basis of
self-respect is the respect accorded by one's neighbours. Only
individuals with an aberrant temperament can in the long run
retain their self-esteem in the face of the disesteem of their
fellows. Apparent exceptions to the rule are met with, especially
among people with strong religious convictions. But these
apparent exceptions are scarcely real exceptions, since such
persons commonly fall back on the putative approbation of some
supernatural witness of their deeds.
     So soon as the possession of property becomes the basis of
popular esteem, therefore, it becomes also a requisite to the
complacency which we call self-respect. In any community where
goods are held in severalty it is necessary, in order to his own
peace of mind, that an individual should possess as large a
portion of goods as others with whom he is accustomed to class
himself; and it is extremely gratifying to possess something more
than others. But as fast as a person makes new acquisitions, and
becomes accustomed to the resulting new standard of wealth, the
new standard forthwith ceases to afford appreciably greater
satisfaction than the earlier standard did. The tendency in any
case is constantly to make the present pecuniary standard the
point of departure for a fresh increase of wealth; and this in
turn gives rise to a new standard of sufficiency and a new
pecuniary classification of one's self as compared with one's
neighbours. So far as concerns the present question, the end
sought by accumulation is to rank high in comparison with the
rest of the community in point of pecuniary strength. So long as
the comparison is distinctly unfavourable to himself, the normal,
average individual will live in chronic dissatisfaction with his
present lot; and when he has reached what may be called the
normal pecuniary standard of the community, or of his class in
the community, this chronic dissatisfaction will give place to a
restless straining to place a wider and ever-widening pecuniary
interval between himself and this average standard. The invidious
comparison can never become so favourable to the individual
making it that he would not gladly rate himself still higher
relatively to his competitors in the struggle for pecuniary
reputability.
     In the nature of the case, the desire for wealth can
scarcely be satiated in any individual instance, and evidently a
satiation of the average or general desire for wealth is out of
the question. However widely, or equally, or "fairly", it may be
distributed, no general increase of the community's wealth can
make any approach to satiating this need, the ground of which
approach to satiating this need, the ground of which is the
desire of every one to excel every one else in the accumulation
of goods.  If, as is sometimes assumed, the incentive to
accumulation were the want of subsistence or of physical comfort,
then the aggregate economic wants of a community might
conceivably be satisfied at some point in the advance of
industrial efficiency; but since the struggle is substantially a
race for reputability on the basis of an invidious comparison, no
approach to a definitive attainment is possible.
     What has just been said must not be taken to mean that there
are no other incentives to acquisition and accumulation than this
desire to excel in pecuniary standing and so gain the esteem and
envy of one's fellow-men. The desire for added comfort and
security from want is present as a motive at every stage of the
process of accumulation in a modern industrial community;
although the standard of sufficiency in these respects is in turn
greatly affected by the habit of pecuniary emulation. To a great
extent this emulation shapes the methods and selects the objects
of expenditure for personal comfort and decent livelihood.
     Besides this, the power conferred by wealth also affords a
motive to accumulation. That propensity for purposeful activity
and that repugnance to all futility of effort which belong to man
by virtue of his character as an agent do not desert him when he
emerges from the naive communal culture where the dominant note
of life is the unanalysed and undifferentiated solidarity of the
individual with the group with which his life is bound up. When
he enters upon the predatory stage, where self-seeking in the
narrower sense becomes the dominant note, this propensity goes
with him still, as the pervasive trait that shapes his scheme of
life. The propensity for achievement and the repugnance to
futility remain the underlying economic motive. The propensity
changes only in the form of its expression and in the proximate
objects to which it directs the man's activity. Under the regime
of individual ownership the most available means of visibly
achieving a purpose is that afforded by the acquisition and
accumulation of goods; and as the self-regarding antithesis
between man and man reaches fuller consciousness, the propensity
for achievement -- the instinct of workmanship -- tends more and
more to shape itself into a straining to excel others in
pecuniary achievement. Relative success, tested by an invidious
pecuniary comparison with other men, becomes the conventional end
of action. The currently accepted legitimate end of effort
becomes the achievement of a favourable comparison with other
men; and therefore the repugnance to futility to a good extent
coalesces with the incentive of emulation. It acts to accentuate
the struggle for pecuniary reputability by visiting with a
sharper disapproval all shortcoming and all evidence of
shortcoming in point of pecuniary success. Purposeful effort
comes to mean, primarily, effort directed to or resulting in a
more creditable showing of accumulated wealth. Among the motives
which lead men to accumulate wealth, the primacy, both in scope
and intensity, therefore, continues to belong to this motive of
pecuniary emulation.
     In making use of the term "invidious", it may perhaps be
unnecessary to remark, there is no intention to extol or
depreciate, or to commend or deplore any of the phenomena which
the word is used to characterise. The term is used in a technical
sense as describing a comparison of persons with a view to rating
and grading them in respect of relative worth or value -- in an
aesthetic or moral sense -- and so awarding and defining the
relative degrees of complacency with which they may legitimately
be contemplated by themselves and by others. An invidious
comparison is a process of valuation of persons in respect of
worth.@

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